This little vignette from my childhood also reveals the pitfalls of biblical literalism and so-called plain readings of scripture, taking words at their most apparent, superficial face value without considering meanings in their context.
Here, the context in Mark is the false accusation by religious authorities that Jesus was casting out demons by demonic power. Jesus’ statement about blaspheming, or speaking evil of the Holy Spirit, is directed specifically at the religious authorities –
“‘but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’”—for they [the religious authorities] had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”
Some people in the overwhelming crowd that had gathered thought that Jesus was crazy, out of his mind. Religious leaders seized on the crowd’s reaction to make the false accusation against Jesus and to sow division among the people.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s the age-old practice of “divide and conquer,” used by exploitative leaders of all kinds to press their nefarious advantage. We see these powers and principalities at work in our own age and throughout human history. It’s as common as our propensity as humans to sin in all manner of ways.
Moreover, worldly powers seeking more power and advantage capitalize on and exploit that which makes us feel fear, guilt and shame. And when it comes to shame, blame is not far behind. We see this at work in the mythic story from Genesis in today’s first reading where Adam blames Eve for his eating the forbidden fruit out of fear of and shame for transgression. And then Eve blames the serpent.
Adam and Eve became aware of their fearful shame in relation to their nakedness. Now in the unadulterated innocence of paradise, nakedness itself was not intrinsically shameful and not to be feared.
But here’s the thing: when nakedness and fear and shame get connected and intertwined, it can be unbearable. Human beings go to great lengths to cover up that which they – we – are afraid and ashamed of.
Nakedness can be literal or metaphorical – in either case, when we feel scared and ashamed in whatever form our nakedness takes, we seek to cover it up, to hide it, to defend against it.
Blaming others is a quick and ready defense against our feelings of fear and shame. Hence the blame game that follows on the heels of shame. It’s a toxic brew, and a sad cascading of events when fear and shame lead to blame, and false accusations that cause divisions within ourselves and among each other. It is the sinful, broken human condition.
Who will rescue us from this wicked cycle, this conundrum of fear and shaming and blaming and false accusations that painfully divide us?
Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our rescuer, who teaches with divine, not demonic authority, who assures us that a dominion divided against itself cannot stand. Christ casts out that which demonically possesses us, and Christ does so in God’s name and by God’s power, not that of demons. Christ unites and does not divide. In short, Christ is our peace. Christ’s death, along with Christ’s resurrection, breaks the age-old cycles that have caused so much human pain and misery.
Moreover, the flood of baptismal water washes all of this away. And when the cycles of sin well up again, we remember and give thanks for baptism, and the baptismal floods wash it all away again – and again, and again. So repeats a new, spiraling redemptive cycle.
How does this work? In Christ, by grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness, we are freed to be shamelessly naked in our broken, but redeemed humanity, and return to a kind of innocence, a second naiveté.
This new-found freedom in Christ then casts out fear, removes the cause for shame, cuts short and stops in its tracks the obsession to blame others, and thus the cause for division within the human family. It’s a redemptive feedback loop.
And those who seek to exploit all of this to divide and conquer are robbed of their power, too. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the absence of fear, we discover confidence – the root of which is fide, that is, faith. So, it’s faith, not fear. Trust in Christ, our rescuer.
In the absence of shame, we rediscover our dignity, which Christ restores to us with true humility.
In the absence of blaming, we rediscover the dignity of others, commending others in Christ, forgiving them, seeing what they do and who they are in the best possible Christly light.
The apostle Paul gives us a good sense of this new, restorative cycle in Christ in today’s second reading from 2nd Corinthians. Paul writes: “Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ – we believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:13-16)
Christ, in the power of the Spirit, sets in motion this whole new cycle, not that of shame to blame to division, but of faith and speech (proclamation of the gospel) and the spread and extension of grace upon grace that increases thanksgiving and renews us day by day.
And with this redemptive, reconciling Christly cycle, we also are given the gift of a new, inclusive and expansive vision of who is our family, a vision not marked and marred by division, but unity in Christ. Thus, we hear Jesus’ conclusion as reported by Mark: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mark 3:33-35)
Thus, in Christ, as we have emerged from the same baptismal waters together, you are my new siblings. Christ brought me here to discover a new family, but in a lineage to which I’ve always belonged in Christ through baptism. Or as commentators I read in preparation for this sermon quipped, “While some conclude that blood is thicker than water, baptismal water is, in fact, thicker than blood,” (cf. commentary in Sundays and Seasons for Pentecost 2B/Lectionary 10).
We are siblings to each other in this congregation, even as our congregation is a sibling to all of the congregations of the Metro DC Synod, which just met in Assembly via Zoom this weekend – as we all are siblings to all Christians in the universal church.
And in Christ we discover a new humanity, that all human beings are bonded together whether we know it or claim it or not.
And every time we are assembled in Jesus’ name by the power of the Spirit, we are formed as family by our assembly’s praxis, when we hear again the family’s sacred stories, sing the family’s songs, pray for the family’s needs, share peace with each other in familial ways, and eat a family meal – only then to go out to do the same in reconciling ways with a still wider human family.
In these ways, by God’s grace and mercy and under the guidance and power of the Spirit we share in the ways that God in Christ breaks the age-old cycles of fear, shame, blame, false accusation and division, replacing it all with confident faith, dignity, forgiveness, commending others, being leaven for reconciling unity.
Thanks be to God, and may it always be so among us in the power of the Holy Spirit for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
• Recall occasions in your life when you have given in to the cycles of fear, shame, blaming others in ways that sow discord. Commend these memories to God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.
• Recall occasions when in your forgiven freedom you have given yourself over to the sacred cycles of renewed and confident faith which lead you to forgive others and to seek reconciliation. Give thanks to God for this grace upon grace.